Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335
The protagonist of the novel is Ruth Puttermesser. The book is more like a collection of short stories, as the character of Ruth had first appeared in stories decades earlier; Cynthia Ozick charts Ruth’s progress as an adult, single woman living and working in New York City. Ruth is an...
(The entire section contains 783 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The protagonist of the novel is Ruth Puttermesser. The book is more like a collection of short stories, as the character of Ruth had first appeared in stories decades earlier; Cynthia Ozick charts Ruth’s progress as an adult, single woman living and working in New York City. Ruth is an attorney who, during the course of the novel, learns she will be ousted from her job in the New York’s fiscal bureaucracy. Ruth pursues her dreams of fixing New York’s problems by becoming—very briefly—the mayor, and of finding blissful romance. Ruth is both more intellectual and more romantic than her job permitted, and she is often lost in reading philosophy and fiction.
Xanthippe is a golem, a traditional Jewish folkloric figure that is usually animated from clay with a Hebrew incantation. Although this young female golem seems to be Ruth’s fantasy, she takes on the role of a character as she lives in Ruth’s apartment, even sleeping in her bed. Xanthippe, named for Socrates’ wife, comes to life at a point when Ruth is contemplating her likely childless future; the figure serves as a surrogate daughter and also helps Ruth with her fantastic plans to rule New York. She turns out to have a voracious sexual appetite.
Morris Rappaport is Ruth’s married lover, who lives out of town. They break up early in the novel when he leaves her because she reads too much. After he returns, however, he pursues a sexual relationship with the golem, which ultimately destroys her.
Rupert Rabeeno is an artist who becomes Ruth’s lover. His vocation is exactly interpreting old masters in miniature, which he considers to be performance art and not copying. While Ruth believes he is her true love and that they are destined to marry, she actually tries to remake the two of them into the 19th-century novelist George Eliot and her lover George Lewes.
Lidia is Ruth’s cousin from Moscow, Russia, who comes to visit her.
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
The characters of The Puttermesser Papers are less novelistic creations who grow and change in the course of the novel than they are static and one-dimensional figures in Ozick’s fantastic allegory. With the exception of Ruth Puttermesser, whom readers come to pity more than admire, most of the characters function as figures serving Ozick’s purpose of social satire. An alter ego for Ozick herself, Ruth made her first appearance in 1962 as a character in story published in The New Yorker magazine that later became the first chapter of The Puttermesser Papers. About once a decade afterward, Ozick revisited Ruth to add another chapter to a character who came to life at age thirty-four, then entered successive decades as Ozick herself entered them. The first two chapters of Ruth’s saga appeared in Levitation (1982).
The second chapter, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” confirms Ozick’s reputation for outrageous inventiveness when Ruth creates and animates the golem. A fantastic Frankenstein-like creation, Xanthippe, named after Socrates’s wife, aids Ruth in her revenge upon the political machine that fired her and helps her in her “Plan for the Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration and Redemption of the City of New York.” Then, as Frankenstein raged against his creator, the golem utterly destroys Ruth’s achievements as mayor. This plot also resonates with echoes of the Book of Genesis, in which God creates man out of earth; the name “Adam” means “clay” or “earth.” While Ruth imitates God the creator, she also imitates Ozick the writer, who is made a writer by the characters she creates, as Ruth is made mayor by the golem she creates.
The third chapter, “Puttermesser Paired,” returns to the question of art, imitation, and their relationship to life when Ruth falls in love with the painter Rupert Rabeeno. She first meets him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is painting an imitation or “reenactment” of The Death of Socrates. Here Ozick engages in subtle symbolism in her second allusion to the philosophic tradition and to its central Socratic tenet, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” By the end of the novel and of Ruth’s life, the irony of such a belief will be clear to the reader.
The fourth chapter, “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” is, in contrast to earlier chapters, the least richly imagined and fantastically described. It returns to Ozick’s central preoccupation as a writer with questions of Jewish identity and its relation to community.
The fantastic returns in the last chapter, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” where Ozick indulges her satirical antiutopian impulse and manages to negate much of what the reader has learned about Ruth in a paradise that quickly becomes hell.